BEIJING - New mother Geng Zitong remembers vividly the helplessness she felt when she had to breastfeed her four-month-old son in public to soothe his loud cries, despite her desperate attempts to find a nursing room.
“I was almost in tears when the only nursing room I found in the mall, after searching three floors, was locked though there was no one inside,” said the 30-year-old, as she recalled the September 2022 incident where she was out alone with her son.
“I felt very frustrated, and we were drawing a lot of stares because my son was crying so loudly... I decided to find a quiet corner near the toilet to feed him,” added Ms Geng, who lives in Beijing. “Before that, I had held him closer, patted his back and rocked him gently, but nothing worked.”
The adequacy of China’s public nursing rooms – and the general lack of support for breastfeeding mothers – was in the spotlight earlier this week after a video of women stepping up to surround a mother breastfeeding her child at a bus terminal in Beijing went viral on Sunday.
In the 30-second clip, a mother is seen trying to calm her crying baby, who is strapped to her front, by pacing around her seat while carrying a big backpack and a waist pouch. A black luggage bag is parked next to her.
She then sits down and starts breastfeeding her child, drawing glances from nearby passengers, when another woman approaches her. The two women speak briefly before the second woman starts using the luggage bags belonging to the two of them to form a barrier.
More women then join the “wall of love” – as netizens called it – to give the mother privacy as she feeds her baby.
A hashtag on the video has so far received more than 300 million views and sparked more than 160,000 comments on microblogging platform Weibo, with netizens calling for more support for breastfeeding mothers.
China, whose population fell for the first time in more than 60 years in 2022, has been trying to encourage couples to have more than one child by loosening birth restrictions and rolling out policy changes including cash stipends and longer paid leave days.
The National Health Commission (NHC) has also been encouraging women to purely breastfeed newborns in the first six months – which is in line with World Health Organisation recommendations – and to continue nursing till the baby is 24 months old, even after introducing other foods.
But the lack of nursing rooms at workplaces and in office buildings is a major hindrance to working women who want to express milk after their maternity leave ends, noted Dr Wang Fang, a gynaecologist at a public hospital in Inner Mongolia.
“It is very rare that a mother would not try breastfeeding, but it can be hard to go beyond six months because they have to go back to work,” she said.
“What is most important is to provide support at public places such as malls, transport hubs and offices to those who are willing and able to breastfeed.”
Ms Geng, who has watched the viral video, said: “I could understand perfectly how the mother felt when she decided to breastfeed in public. At that point in time, the priority was to feed her baby, and not so much about ‘modesty’.”
Another new mother Liu Yina said that she would visit only malls with well-equipped nursing rooms to make it easier for her to breastfeed or express milk.
Ms Liu, who has a nine-month-old son, would sometimes send her husband to scout out the shopping centres before a family visit to confirm that the nursing rooms have at least a power socket, a table and a chair for her to use her electric pump.
“So far, I have dared to visit only the one mall that’s about a 30-minute drive from my home. I try my best to avoid breastfeeding in public because I want to be considerate to others, who may feel uncomfortable. But I will not feed my son or express milk in toilets because it is so unhygienic,” said Ms Liu, 28, who works at a fintech company in Beijing.
Both Ms Liu and Ms Geng said that they have noticed cleaners or other workers sometimes using nursing rooms as their rest areas, and some of them are men.
“It’s weird because I would feel like I’m intruding on them,” said Ms Geng, who has also noticed cigarette butts on the floor of some nursing rooms.
Ms Geng said that no one told her off when she breastfed her baby in public, but stares and glances from passers-by made her uncomfortable, and she kept her head down to focus on her baby.
Ms Liu said her office building does not have dedicated nursing rooms so she uses her supervisor’s office. “But when she has meetings, I will use the conference room instead,” she said.
“It is awkward because I’ve to walk past colleagues whom I don’t really know – many of them men – on my way to the conference room, and their glances make me feel slightly embarrassed.”
The NHC’s November 2021 action plan to promote breastfeeding calls for the construction of nursing rooms in busy public areas, including traffic hubs, shopping malls and parks. By 2025, over 80 per cent of public areas will include nursing rooms if targets are met.
At least 10 cities in China currently do not have any nursing rooms at all, according to local media reports. In 2019, there were roughly just 2,600 nursing rooms across China, where 14.6 million babies were born that year. Most of them were in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The NHC said breastfeeding promotes a newborn’s growth, and can also reduce the morbidity risk to mother and baby.
But only about 30 per cent of babies in China are fed purely breast milk for at least six months, the Children’s Hospital of Fudan University in Shanghai reported in August 2022. The NHC aims to raise this to 50 per cent by 2025.
Current figures echo a 2019 survey by the China Development Research Foundation. Its poll of 10,223 mothers across 12 areas in China, including cities and villages, found that 29 per cent of babies were fed purely breast milk for the first six months.
This figure was higher in big cities at 36 per cent, compared with the 23 per cent in small and medium cities and the 28 per cent in rural areas, the report said, although it did not provide an explanation for the disparity.
The foundation’s research pointed to the success of formula milk advertising that has encouraged mothers to believe that formula milk is more nutritious than breast milk and can be used as a substitute.
Additional reporting by Miao Chunlei